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  • Richard Conniff writes about behavior, in humans and other animals, on two, four, six, and eight legs, plus the occasional slither.

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Feeling That Old Mammalian Thing

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 24, 2015

Two Seals Sleeping on Rock

I was just reading a scene in one of the Patrick Melrose novels where a young child is watching his baby brother nurse, and when someone asks what he wants for lunch, he says, “I want what he’s having.” (Yes, yes, the Edward St. Aubyn novels post-date the “I want what she’s having” scene in “When Harry Met Sally,” so it’s derivative, but also more deeply resonant.) Then I ran across this intriguing essay in the New York Times about our deep mammalian identity:

In a world of conscious beings, identity matters. Self-perception plays a vital role in behavior, so the question of how human beings think about themselves in relation to the world is more than simply one of semantics; ways of seeing lead, directly and indirectly, to ways of acting.

Given all that, I choose to identify as mammal.

And this is my reason: Our relationship to the natural world, which is changing in such dramatic ways, is in desperate need of revision. Human exceptionalism — expressed in our treatment, use and abuse of other animals, and in the damage we do to the natural environment — has paved the way for enormous harm. It seems clear, then, that identifying exclusively as human has its pitfalls.

It’s worth reading the whole piece in the Times.

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